by A/Prof Munjed Al Muderis with Patrick Weaver.
p 336. Allen & Unwin. $22.99
Despite our common motivations and dedication to learning, the journey of each medical student is unique. Despite managing intense study loads, we probably cannot imagine the added stress of living under a brutal dictatorship, as was the experience of Associate Professor Munjed Al Muderis. He began his Medical studies at Basra University in southern Iraq, near the Kuwaiti border that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces had invaded a month prior. It was clear from the outset that A/Prof Al Muderis’ journey was never going to be straightforward.
Midway through his first year of medical school, his parents called one evening and implored him to return home to safety. He was awoken the following morning to the sound of planes overhead and explosions nearby; it was the 17th of January 1991 and the commencement of Operation Desert Storm. After he tended to civilian casualties at his teaching hospital, he made the journey along the war-ravaged Western highway, and passed the Imam Ali Air Base that was under active airstrikes by the US-led coalition, to Baghdad. Al Muderis’ gripping vignette ensures that one will never again complain about long flights or drives to visit family.
Fast forward and the young Dr Al Muderis found himself in one of the worst imaginable situations: he had to choose between honouring the Hippocratic Oath by refusing to remove the ears of army deserters, or facing death at the hands of Saddam’s military police. For most of us this is a nightmare situation but sadly it is the reality for some healthcare workers in unstable geopolitical environments.
After the journey to Australia, his stay in Curtin Detention Centre would prove another major hurdle. As detainee 982 (names were replaced by numbers), his experience was the rule, not the exception: extended periods of solitary confinement, a general lack of privacy, and navigating the complex web of rumours and tensions that a confined environment instigated between detainees. Detainees were constantly reminded that their stay was indefinite and they may never be resettled in Australia, but could return to their country of origin at any time.
The story only briefly covered Al Muderis’ rise through the medical ranks in Australia, most likely because the day-to-day experiences of surgical training are seemingly mundane in comparison to the preceding journey. Nevertheless, a more in-depth discussion of his pioneering use of osseointegration surgery in Australia would have been appreciated.
Despite the seemingly unbelievable events of Walking Free, there are some commonalities about life that hold true irrespective of personal context. Marriage and a newborn child midway through medical school was never an easy undertaking but religious differences and constant interference from both families may ensure any union is doomed. There is the sobering reminder that a bond and later marriage forged through a treacherous boat journey and stay in detention could be broken by the strain of long working hours and constant relocations associated with a surgical career.
My favourite anecdotes involve the savviness of Mrs Al Muderis. She managed the family finances during wartime and economic sanctions, she provided USD $22 000 in cash to her son upon hearing his need to flee during a time in which owning US dollars in Iraqi banks was prohibited, and organised legal representation during his stay in Australian detention centres. When family is involved, mothers will always find a way.
Al Muderis has presented the events of his life as actions and reactions, rather than delving into whether his experiences had any long term psychological toll, however in writing your own story you afford to keep some cards close to your chest. Walking Free is the journey of someone who achieved their dreams against the odds of complex, challenging and evolving geopolitical circumstances. It gives a face and story to those on the other side of the fence: locked up, anonymous individuals only seen in glimpses of news reports as the ‘dangerous other’; individuals that are every bit as human as us, but who have been dealt a very different hand in life.
As medical students, it can be easy to become entangled in the inevitable drama and competition that surrounds us, and lose sight of why we are pursuing this goal. Walking Free is a humbling reminder that everything can change in the blink of an eye and that no matter how tortuous the journey becomes, there is something to be learnt from every step of the way.
Anna Marie Plant
Anna Marie Plant is a Medical student at the University of Sydney with a strong interest in Global Health. She wishes to pursue a career in surgery with a humanitarian focus and work for an organisation such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to address the global shortage of safe surgical care, especially in orthopaedics and trauma.
Conflicts of interest
The author of this book review declares that they have no conflict of interest.